Graves’ disease is an autoimmune condition. In autoimmune conditions, the body’s immune system produces antibodies (usually needed to fight viral/bacterial infections) against its owntissues. In the case of Graves’ disease, these auto-antibodies bind to the thyroid, as well as sometimes to the muscle tissue that sits behind the eyes. These antibodies cause the thyroid to make excess thyroid hormone (thyroxine) which can lead to wide range of symptoms.
What are symptoms of Graves’ disease?
Thyroid hormones are responsible for our metabolism, heart function, skin & nail changes as well as bone turnover. When there is excess thyroid hormone, you can experience heart racing or palpitations, along with tremors, weight loss, frequent bowel movements, heightened anxiety and heat intolerance. Some individuals may have enlargement of the thyroid (a goiter) in which case they might notice a sensation of neck fullness. In a third of cases, individuals experience eye symptoms such as gritty/dry eyes with/without vision changes. Symptoms are usually correlated with laboratory findings and your physician may need to do additional testing to confirm the diagnosis.
How do you treat Graves’ disease?
Graves’ disease is perfectly treatable; do not be fooled by its name! The first line option is anti-thyroid medication which can halt the excess hormone production, help the Graves disease go into remission, and give the thyroid a chance to recover. Treatment usually continues over a 1-2 year period until the medication is weaned. If Graves’ disease recurs, the next options are a more definitive treatment with radioactive iodine which effectively “burns off the thyroid”. The final alternative is surgery which is safe and effective but usually reserved for cases where radioactive iodine cannot be used (pregnancy or severe eye disease).